March 27, 2020
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Democracy, That Untamed Excess

New languages of politics will help free the system from the grip of corporate power

Democracy, That Untamed Excess
Breaking The Box
Occupy Wall Street ­became a popular template for 21st-century protest
Photograph by AP
Democracy, That Untamed Excess

One often hears overzealous warriors of neoliberalism say of Leftists that they live in a time-warp; that the world has long changed and the disappearance of state socialism has finally proved that all their beliefs were little more than pipe-dreams. Ironically, they talk as though history came to an end with the collapse of ­‘actually existing’ socialisms and the global ascendance of neoliberalism in the early 1990s. As though all thought came to an end; as if the distilled essence of everything that could ever be thought, or need be thought, was already encapsulated in the neoliberal dogma.

And so it happens that the neoliberal continues to inhabit the world of the 1990s, when most defeated Leftists too had bought into the idea of the ‘end of history’, at any rate, the end of thought. For some time, it did seem neoliberalism provided the ultimate horizon of what was possible. The CPI(M) in West Bengal and Kerala represented one pole of that defeated Left, the Blairite ‘third way’ New Labour in Britain the other: their defining feature was surrender to neoliberal dogma, to the belief that no new thought was possible anymore. And in the way it had been posed by the 20th century, the choice was stark­—between ‘the state’ and ‘the market’. Since the failure of state socialism had rendered the first choice null and void (or so it was then believed), ‘the market’ (disingenuously used to suggest untrammelled corporate power) appeared as our only saviour. In a strange way, Marxism and neoliberalism (and its precursors) had colluded, through the 20th century, to produce this mythical coincidence between ‘the market’ and corporate power.

Soon it became clear how central the state was to the success of the neoliberal project, the crux of which was corporate takeover of life­—of the natural and intellectual commons, of state property and, indeed, of farmers’ private land (none of which  can happen on their own, without active state intervention). But it also became clear that state intervention was not simply a matter to be settled with reference to some immutable laws of the economy; the ‘logic’ of ‘the economy’ could no longer be allowed to trump all other concerns, including ethical ones. And in 1992, with the holding of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the Stockholm Conference (1972), the environmental crisis and the climate agenda came to occupy attention as a matter of urgent intervention—both state and non-state actors.

At least at a normative level, the question of climate justice has underlined the need for tough environmental regulation by the state, especially of corporations, with their scant regard for the ecological destruction they wrought. The question of the state’s role in economic life is, thus, by no means a settled issue, as the champions of neoliberalism would have us believe.

The challenge for the Left is to develop an ethic of solidarity while taking part in the many new sectional struggles taking shape.

It also needs to be recognised that many forms of market and private ent­repreneurship are as compatible with a reconstructed Left vision of the future as they are incompatible with a neoliberal one that recognises only one kind of property as legitimate. In the cou­rse of recent struggles across the world, it has become clear that the well-being of the majority of people is inc­ompatible with the takeover of life by powerful corporations and banks. A reconstructed Left vision, on the other hand, has to recognise that the coexistence of different forms of property—from the commons with wide-ranging usufruct rights, to cooperative and state ownership, and even non-corporate private property—is key to a just and equitable future.

It is necessary, therefore, to set aside, once and for all, the ideological shibboleths of the 20th century that necessarily reduced our economic choices to oversimplified ones between ‘the state’ and ‘the market’. It must, of course, be asked as to what the agency or modality for the actualisation of such a vision would be. Such a question would certainly be very per­tinent given that conventional Communist or Marxist parties everywhere have reduced themselves to irrelevance due to their refusal to change. A moment’s reflection, however, would show us that it is not that these parties have not changed; just that they have changed in the wrong way, by surrendering to capital, by buying into its vision of the future—of the new consumption utopia. Where they have not changed is in taking on board que­stions of ecology, caste, gender, sexuality—not just as matters of political expediency but as questions that would actually rec­ast their theoretical frameworks. These parties, with their rigid and top-down organisational forms, have found themselves singularly incapable of entering into any meaningful dialogues with movements around the questions of caste, gender, sexuality, mass dispossession and ecology, where all the real action is. Strangely, alongside radical-sounding anti-capitalist rhetoric, the parties have espoused a politics of social conservatism; they have avoided taking on the forces of patriarchy and Manuvaad even as they refuse to rethink their fascination with productivism and take the question of climate change seriously.

It is important, however, to emphasise that none of the above questions reduces the significance of ‘class’. But what it does demand of the intellectual and political Left is a recognition and serious understanding of the way questions of class always app­ear in real life as ‘overdetermined’ by other questions—never in their ‘pure’ laboratory form, so to speak. In the emerging scenario, therefore, it is legitimate to expect that the new Left formations of the future will take the shape less of single, ideologically focused parties and more of coalitions or platforms. Parties themselves may take a coalitional form with different political tendencies existing within them in creative tension, or there may be actual platforms that emerge through struggle, where different segments participate as equals.

There is no room in such an imagination for any ‘revolutionary vanguard’ giving leadership to a monolith of a movement because such coalitions can only emerge through struggles. This is where the Left parties and their affiliates face their big­gest challenge: the challenge of developing an ethic of solidarity where they learn to participate in sectional struggles without trying to take over or control them. Something of this kind has been happening with Left groups participating, say, in the ongoing Dalit struggle in Gujarat. Over the years, big cha­nges have taken place in Indian universities where the political presence of large sections of Dalit and Bahujan students has led to a churning among left-wing students’ groups as well. Uni­versities, in this sense, provide a unique space for the confrontation of conflicting ideas, for debate and, thus, for learning from opponents as well. Little wonder, then, it is universities that have been in the eye of the storm­—where everything from critiquing the anti-ecological thrust of ‘development’, debating Kashmir and the death penalty, to worshipping Mah­ishasura, have been seen as threats to the ‘nationalist’ order. And it is here that a new kind of Left discourse has begun to take shape that attempts to establish connections with radical currents that are not easily rep­resented by Left parties.

No less important and pertinent is the question of the modality of transformation/s. Is it possible today to carry on with the twentieth-century imagination of revolution? Twentieth-century revolutions, where a group of determined revolutionaries led their parties to capture state power, simply instituted profoundly anti-democra­tic political systems—and they ended up eit­her imploding (as with the Soviet Union and the East Bloc) or building capitalism in some form (as in China and Vietnam). That experience suggests there is not much there worth repeating.

To take on the corporate ­takeover of life, the Left vision of the future must recognise the coexistence of different forms of property.

It was by rejecting this experience of 20th-century socialisms that the Latin American experiments with ‘socialism in the 21st century’ emerged. There emerged attempts by a range of new Left parties and movements that sought transformation through the democratic process—in Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. The new Left formations and movements in each of them have different histories, but they all share one common feature: they have emerged responding to the actual needs of their respective societies, drawing on popular traditions of their own societies. An important feature of 21st-century socialism is that, unlike its modernist and productivist 20th-century predecessor, it takes indigenous traditions and forms of communal governance very seriously and draws on them in terms of formulating its own philosophy. The Ecuadorian idea of buen vivir (living well), for instance, actually draws on the cosmology of the Quechua people of the Andes in order to spell out a vision that is community oriented, ecologically balanced and culturally sensitive—a vis­ion now enshrined in the Ecuadorean Constitution. Perhaps the most important and radical part of this cosmology, now adopted by many Latin American movements, is that humans are not and cannot be owners of the earth and nat­ure’s resources; at best, they are its stewards and managers. This runs fundamentally against the grain of corporate takeover of the earth’s resources.

While these experiments have had a significant impact in terms of improvement in the lives of millions of people, they have not always managed to challenge the entrenched power of corporate capital. And these experiments too stand thwarted, to an extent, under the combined assault of big corporations and the propaganda machines of the big media. The recent ­impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the former Workers’ Party president of Brazil, by a highly corrupt cabal of white elite corporate players, backed by an orchestrated campaign in the corporate media, is a case in point. All these experiments, even in their ‘failure’, underline that there are no short-cuts in the process of democratic transformation, just as they point to the inescapable need to take on corporate power frontally.

Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee

Taking on the power of big corporations, their violations of the law, their behind-the-scenes operations of subverting the law, their surreptitious takeover of the political process itself, their plunder of the natural commons—all these have been at the centre of many recent mass struggles and movements. From the Indignados in Spain and Greece to the Occupy Wall Street movement across the United States of America to important strains within the anti­-corruption movement in India, what was common was this feeling that politics and the political process had been hijacked by the powerful. The call for ‘real democracy’ resounded everywhere; and political parties across the board, along with the ent­ire formal political process, began to be seen as thoroughly corrupt and deeply compromised. Many of these movements were succeeded by new kinds of political formations and we may have different understandings of what happened to them and how they fared, but that is really not the point here. For most of these are experiments—attempts at finding a language and pol­itical forms adequate for our times. They should be seen as a sign of the fact that new forms are yet to emerge.

New languages have yet to evolve that will make it possible to retrieve the political process from the grip of corporate power and enable us to understand dem­ocracy afresh—dem­ocracy as the untamed, unruly excess that escapes the dom­esticated confines of liberal parliamentarianism, which enabled its hijacking in the first place. This should not be understood to mean a rejection of the law and ‘due process’, but rather as an ack­nowledgement that law and justice are not always symmetrically aligned. It is precisely to ensure that the law functions as a means of justice and not as an accomplice of the powerful that this unruly excess has to occasionally manifest itself, often outside the formal political domain. It is thus that a Singur or a Nandigram revolt opens out new possibilities, new ways of thinking about ‘development’ and the land question: a new land acquisition law is framed and the Supreme Court directs the return of the land acquired by the government from the Singur peasants, while economists have begun to think of enlisting the peasants as shareholders in projects built on their land rather than dispossessing them.

It is in this sense that the movements against corporate and bank bailouts with taxpayers’ money has now become a big issue and, even though they did not win in the US and the UK, the matter is now on the table. The movements have not simply disappeared without residue. That is why the Supreme Court in Iceland upheld the government’s decision to subject the bankers involved in the Kaupthing bank market manipulation case to the same laws that applied to other citizens. The Kaupthing bank, which collapsed in 2008, virtually crippled Iceland’s economy. Iceland decided not to bail out the banks; instead, it  went after the corrupt, criminal elements at the top to protect peoples’ savings, with the Supreme Court sentencing nine top bankers (in one of the cases) to decades in prison. Iceland’s economy has bounced back rapidly to its vibrant form, giving the lie to the argument made by the bankers, and uncritically accepted in the US and the UK, that bailouts with taxpayers’ money were the only way to keep  the economy from collapsing.

What is important in the Iceland case is the acceptance of an important principle: corporations and banks have to bear res­ponsibility for actions they undertake in their pursuit of super-­profits. That is where much of the future struggle against corporate takeover of life will, in all likelihood, be directed.

(Aditya Nigam is professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, and author of Desire Named Development, Penguin, 2011.)

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